An Unlikely Hero Lifts Disney Pixar's Up
- Thursday, May 28, 2009
Pixar takes a bit of a risk with an unlikely hero in its newest release, Up.
An old man with most of his life behind him, Carl is crabby and isolated. He's not your average cute animal, beautiful princess, or fast machine we so often see at the heart of animated family films. But Up, releasing in theaters on May 29, 2009, works on every level. It's funny and poignant in equal measures, in no small part because the character and the story are so unpredictable.
Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) has lost the love of his life, Ellie. She had shared with him a love for life and a longing for adventure. A wordless musical montage, as moving as any film segment you'll see this year, sweetly and gently takes us through their courtship, marriage, and Ellie's final illness. Carl is now an old codger, pestered by the construction company which wants his land, the retirement home workers who plan to take him away, and a Wilderness Scout who wants to earn a badge for service to the elderly. Carl merely wants to be left alone, but life still goes on around him. An unfulfilled promise haunts him along with the absence of his beloved wife, a promise he made in childhood to take her to an idyllic waterfall in South America.
"We were experimenting with a lot of escape kind of ideas, and this floating house was just very poetic and interesting and appealing," said Pete Docter, director of Up. "So we put the grouchy guy in the floating house with balloons."
With no family to care for, Carl thumbs his nose at all the world and its demands. He attaches balloons to his house and floats away, headed for South America. The Scout, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), is a most startled and unwelcome stowaway.
The unlikely duo finds plenty of new trouble in South America. Russell befriends a large, loud bird which he names Kevin. This particular bird is the desired prey of an old adventurer, Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), and his pack of mouthy but vicious dogs. The dogs are equipped with collars that translate their thoughts into English. Aside from a natural canine obsession with squirrels, their thoughts are rather sinister. One Labrador named Dug (voiced by Bob Peterson), is more of a lover than a fighter. He adopts Carl as his new master, much to Carl's chagrin.
The result is lots of canine capers, high-flying adventures, and perhaps the slowest fight between two old fogies ever recorded on film.
Pixar's successes have become legendary. Toy Story. Monsters, Inc. The Incredibles. Cars. Ratatouille. Wall·E. Now that Pixar has joined the Disney family in recent years, some have wondered if the magic will continue to remain. Up lays those doubts to rest. Like its predecessors, Up delivers laugh after laugh, and not just small chuckles, but big sidesplitting guffaws. These are done with clean, gentle humor that is safe for children. Also following Pixar tradition, it delivers a few lumps in the throat as well. Carl and Russell both need connection with another human being. Both have suffered real loss, and their eventual friendship echoes the poignancy of those losses.
"The [movies] that I find that stick with me are the ones that have a deeper kind of emotional resonance," Docter said, " We're always trying to find those kind of hooks in our movies even though the film might be about bugs or fish or monsters, that there's some identifiable relatable thing that we see in our own lives that these characters on the screen are going through and that's certainly what we were after with Carl."
Identifying with Carl's loneliness and love is also what drew Ed Asner to the role. "The unbelievable suffering, first of all, that I could see the man was going through, the conditions he was living under because of his tremendous solitude, his honesty, his character, his love for this woman, which one felt could never, never be challenged or replaced," Asner said. "But we find that the realization that as he [builds a] closer and closer relationship with Russell, that there's a value to be gained by forsaking the past and taking advantage of the present and using it to go into the future. That's what I feel he does in this."
The emotional resonance elevates this movie from just another funny caper to one of the best films of the year. Carl may be just a crabby widower whom nobody notices, ready to fold up his life and fade away. Russell may just be another chubby scout walking down the street, headed for nothing special in life. However, there is a richness to both of them, their longings and loves and memories and courage, that slowly grows on the viewer. Their story includes a whimsical balloon ride and goofy dogs, but the heart of the story can be found just down the street, wherever someone lets go of the past and cares for the people life brings them in the present.
"Putting energy into life is important," Asner said. "Carl had stopped putting energy into his life. He sits and dreams and relishes the thought of joining Ellie either on the mountaintop by some miracle or in death. It's the same as a living death. And along comes a change in circumstance, which forces him to acknowledge this boy. And he chooses the living as opposed to death. I think it's a wonderful example to follow for all people."
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar. Disney/Pixar's Up releases in theaters nationwide on Friday, May 29, 2009. Read the full review here.
**This article first published on May 28, 2009.
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